The Boyfriend – R. Raj Rao

TBThis book is beautifully written with rich language but the characters are shallow (or is that because the gay underworld shapes them thus?). Yudi’s character is insipid and doesn’t progress. Gauri’s character is not developed and it feels like the author lost interest in the book towards the end and so dashed off the last few pages to meet a deadline. (Like one of his students dashing off an essay?) One of our group said that he was deeply disappointed and that Salman Rushdie captured street life better, that it was hard to connect, emotionally, with the characters.

Some of the material in this book is autobiographical. Raj is one of the few out gay Indian professors who also runs a queer study course at the Pune University where he has been teaching for almost two decades. Raj: I met this boy who was 19 years old, Dalit (working lower class) and I met him at Churchgate loo and… I was a great one for washroom sex, I still swear by it. I think the internet is no match!! Washroom sex is extremely sensuous and internet sex doesn’t have half of that sensuality. This is where I met Rakesh and we took it from there and the fact that something begins in so sordid a way, blossoms into a serious relationship… it is a quite amazing and should be recorded. I think the book does it. Working men is always my hero. The attraction could come from my early romance with Marxism, but a younger working man was better. I didn’t have problems finding the kind of people I want and having sex. I had all my friends – who are professionals, academics, both gay and straight. But when it comes to my love life – it is a very different type of guy that I am looking for. The thing is to shun stereotypes… and if you would detect stereotype, then one should try to move away from it. Having said that, it should be left to the individual… Stereotyping is the silliest thing to do, as anybody could be a gay man or a homosexual. That’s what the word ‘queer’ does, it includes all these people under the ambit of ‘queer’. Also when you talk about stereotyping, we are talking about certain segment of society that is affluent, what about who are outside the affluent society but are also queer?

Space and movement plays a key role in The Boyfriend, in which the majority of chapter titles allude to spaces/places where significant events take place. The narrative is a seemingly endless meandering in and out of different spaces that Yudi inhabits (however briefly) or visits or travels through. The urban Bombay landscape spreads out before Yudi as he moves around on an erotic quest. Mate House, Yudi’s apartment in the suburbs of Nalla Sopara, is actually the name of the building that houses the apartment.

Jesuit philosopher and sociologist Michel de Certeau wrote of a railway compartment as a space where “rest and dreams reign supreme.” It is a space where immobility-within-mobility transgresses the order outside, where offices and other large buildings impose an order to a city. The queer space of the train compartment in The Boyfriend could be understood within this framework. The packed compartment is a manner of incarceration, where each person is fixed in his position. But the incarceration, with its erotic charge, is pleasurable—also because of its ability to flout surveillance of the outside world. (Though someone in our group thought that this was ‘specious bollocks’)

The Bombay Suburban Railway ferries six million passengers back and forth daily from the suburbs to the city. It has one of the highest passenger densities of any urban railway system in the world and it helps Yudi bridge the gap between the Nalla Sopara, the suburban ghetto that he is forced to inhabit and the urban anonymity that offers erotic contact: When the train arrived, the two of them boarded on the very first compartment. Yudi knew this to be the gay compartment by convention. Activity, however, was restricted to the empty space between the entrances and the exits. The train had to be quite full for people to have a go at each other…By the time they reached Bombay Central, all the seats were taken and the people were beginning to press on each other in aisles. In the Virar trains that Yudi caught, this happened all the time, and he was thankful for it. Rubbing his body against someone’s was the best way to handle the tedium of the journey– it was much better than reading or singing bhajans or playing cards p.19.

“Yudi rarely paid for sex. He believed that the time for that had not come yet, although he was beginning to grey at the temples. But he was trim despite his forty-two years and had no tummy” p. 5.

The gay coach didn’t seem to be living up to its reputation. It was stuffed with the most insipid, uninspiring males, entirely devoid of sexuality…the sight of sweaty old men towards whom he did not feel an iota of attraction sickened Yudi. ‘Stand properly’, he felt compelled to say to one of them whose arms were matted with long white hair p. 21

The train compartment has been compared to the Parisian Arcades that Walter Benjamin identifies as a “primordial landscape of consumption”. In his analysis of the correlation between the architectural and the cultural significance of the Arcades, Benjamin comments on how the structure of the Arcades becomes an objective correlative for its function; the insulated, enclosed space of the passageway of shops enfolds the consumer and contains his attention. Cut off from the distractions of an external landscape, the consumer is rapt in fetishizing the commodities on display

The train took off once again. The high-rises of Dahisar and Mira Road, the saltpans of Bhayandar and Naigaon, and the span bridge of Vasai Road came and went, even as a rejuvenating breeze lashed against Yudi’s face. The train thundered over Vasai creek, and he went into a familiar trance, imagining he was a sanyasi who had renounced the world and now nothing at all mattered. Then, at last he was home. The diamond shaped sign board on the platform said: Nalla Sopara. Yudi waded his way towards the exit with some difficulty, before jumping off. ‘Goodbye, train,’ he said p. 23.

He looked out of the window and saw several out-of-Bombay trains parked in the shunting yard. The Rajdhani express was being washed with hosepipes. The sight of these long-distance trains excited him; Yudi decided he would go on holiday soon. Not with any of his pickups, but by himself p. 19.

There’s a vivid description of cottaging: The gents’ toilet at Churchgate provided a twenty-four-hour supply of men; the amount of semen that went down the urine bowls was enough to start a sperm bank. …. Yudi moved into the loo—to while away the time, he said to the voice of God in his breast. A man was blowing another to an audience of two. As soon as Yudi stepped in, everyone straightened up and returned to their respective stalls. They wanted to determine if he was a cat or a pigeon. Yudi gave them the Indian nod to indicate it was okay; he was a pigeon. Activity resumed instantly, with Yudi joining in as a member of the audience.

Yudi has an A to Z of all the loos in South Bombay where men had sex with men: The stinking places were always humming with erotic activity. Orgies in the dark, among piss and shit. The foul smell, however, made the sex more enjoyable. Having spent so much of his life in these loos Yudi had come to the conclusion that there was indeed something sensual about filth. If the toilets were clean, scrubbed with phenyl, patrons wouldn’t achieve orgasm (Rao 28).

Lack of privacy is a problem. There is the problem of finding somewhere to go in a society where many live with families: The moment he told them he had a ‘place’ at Nalla Sopara, they said ‘Sorry, not that far, we have to get back home by such-and ¬such time.’

The writer Gorge Chauncey argues that pre-World War II New York City explodes the myth that a coherent gay male community emerged in New York only after Stonewall: the pre-war urban gay male population in New York City had, as a result of extensive and consistent policing of sexual “deviance,” a less overt mode of existence. Activism or in terms of visible markers of difference, was not emphasized: community-formation depended instead on shared codes of communication: Gay men developed a highly sophisticated system of subcultural codes—codes of dress, speech and style—that enabled them to recognize one another.

He sees parallels between: the gay underworld of pre-war New York City (and) the present-day Mumbai is obvious: hostile surveillance, in both cases, necessitates subterfuges as a mode of survival…anonymity and connectedness, have been central to the self-definition of queer subjects and the formation of queer communities. ….sexual dissidents find their privileges of citizenship severely limited. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code— which was instituted by the imperial authorities in India in the year 1860 and is still operative— declared sodomy as criminal activity; hence the gay population in India is confined to an invisible underground subculture.

Gays have to live a: double life, or wearing a mask and taking it off…..significance of actual masks used in a Gay Pride parade in Chennai in June 2009— masks that indicate both the ambivalence of the queer community about coming out and claiming visible space (despite parading on the streets of a conservative city) and their ability and desire to negotiate multiple identities. It is this fluidity of identities that Yudi’s flaneries in The Boyfriend are directed at and result in, this wearing of masks that ensures the survival of socially inadmissible desires in a hostile surrounding.

Comparisons have been made with Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library: The gay London of Hollinghurst’s novel gives the impression of a community that counters any suggestion of ghettoization. Will Beckwith— educated, elitist, narcissistic, dabbling in journalistic and biographical writing, with a persistent interest in working-class men— seems like a fitting predecessor of Rao’s Yudi. He, however, has none of the middle-age angst that characterizes Yudi, nor the older man’s need to be rest rained to an “underground” gay subculture. Will is part of a coherent gay community; he experiences very little of Yudi’s occasional isolation. Will’s thorough familiarity as well as his unerring instinct for spaces with erotic potential leads him to a succession of sexual partners. His sexual “hunt” is not as defined by anonymity as Yudi’s is, since he is not haunted by a similar vulnerability. However, he savours the anonymity of his frequent visits to one of London’s health clubs— the Corinthian— where he relishes the voyeurism of looking at unknown men in the showers: O the difference of man and man. Sometimes in the showers, which only epitomized and confirmed a general feeling held elsewhere, I was amazed and enlightened by the variety of the male organ. In the rank and file of men showering the cocks and balls took on the air of almost an independent species, exhibited in instructive contrasts (cf. Yudi is obsessed by veins on penises) …. Another place that Will goes in search of this delectable anonymity is a pornographic movie theatre, where casual sexual encounters counter the stagnation of his more stable relationships. Will’s quest for anonymity, however, is largely a matter of choice. The map of gay London is, for Will, is sequence of spaces with the potential of pleasure, their urban anonymity making them desirable. Yudi’s gay Bombay, on the other hand, is map of the loci of subterfuge, where camouflage becomes the primary mode of survival.

Without a visible gay community, safer sex education is difficult: In no time, the blown came in the blower’s mouth. Yudi waited to see if the latter would spit out the former’s cum. To his alarm, the fellow swallowed it. `Idiot, haven’t you heard of HIV?’

There is fear of intimacy and its potential dangers: waking them up at the crack of dawn …..and asking them to leave. He didn’t want to start a new day with last night’s faces…. he didn’t want to spend all his time ensuring his purse wasn’t stolen.

There is also the prospect of blackmail, so prevalent in societies where homosexuality is illegal: He wanted dough. A thousand rupees. He wasn’t going to leave until he was paid.

There a few out gays so homosexuality is misunderstood and everyone is considered straight by default: The policeman did not understand, for he believed that men fucked men only when women weren’t around.

Casual, anonymous sex is so much the norm that gay couples in committed relationships are rare: Ten years ago, he was at peace having casual sex. Any sort of commitment would have at that time seemed a bother. Now he wanted someone to care and share his life with. Trouble was, where would he find such a person?

R. Raj Rao compares untouchability with homosexuality, when one of his protagonists Yudi (who is Brahmin by caste) says to dalit boy Milind” “Homos are no different from Bhangis. Both are Untouchables. I am a homosexual. Gay by caste. Gay by religion.” “Outcastes” he says, “can only expect to be friends with outcastes.” “

“What I am saying is that homosexuals have no caste or religion. They only have their homosexuality….Straight people are Brahmins, gays Shudras. So you see, both you and I are Shudras. That is why we are best friends” p. 82.

The 1992 riots by the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu fundamentalists in Ayodhya form a backdrop to the novel. They create a temporary separation between Yudi and Milind, who is a Dalit and aware of the vulnerability of his social position.

When it was time for Saraswati to come the following morning, Milind refused to run off to the bus stop. ‘I look respectable now’, he explained. He froze on the bed like a mannequin when she arrived, and as a
consequence got assaulted with a yellow dusting cloth, the bai mistaking him for a new curio her saab had picked up p. 104.

As well as anonymous queer spaces there are some ‘official’ ones. A gay nightclub in Bombay, a modelling agency that doubles as a clearinghouse for hustlers – both commercial in nature. The Voodoo Pub in the Colaba area hosts weekly gay nights. Rao’s Testosterone is a fictional version of Voodoo: The psychedelic lighting made everyone look as if sprayed with silver dust. Music blared…Waiters with V-shaped bodies and tight butts, more sleep worthy than any of Testosterone’s regular clients, walked up and down with trays of alcohol. A very fat man was on the dance floor, dancing all by himself. He was so bloated, he looked like the corpse of someone who drowned in the Arabian Sea and bobbed to surface three days later. He gyrated to music as if possessed p. 33.

Yudi told Gulab all about Dnyaneswar. Gulab loved action; he got to work at once. He approached all his dancing queens, including two in drag and whispered into their ears. The queens shrieked with laughter. They were all for vendetta. Everyone sacrificed their dancing and assembled at the bar. Here, as they sipped their lager, they worked out their strategy p. 34.

As he spoke, he punched his rival on the nose, a la Hindi film style. All hell broke loose in the bar…Had the dance floor been less crowded, they would have lain flat on the ground and lain over each other in a passionate fit of hate and love. However, that being impossible, they rewarded each other with fisticuffs and abuses. Fuckers. Asshole. Son-of-a-bitch. Faggot. Both bled from the nose p. 93.

A.K. Modelling Agency was a gurukul. At least that was how its owner, a leading Bollywood star, saw it. This gentleman was bisexual, but strictly closeted. In a mainstream occupation like Hindi films, where heroes had to be tough and macho (and strictly hetero), he couldn’t afford to be open about his sexual preferences. Or no producer would approach him with offers, and his rivals would swoop down and devour all the meaty roles. In order to deal with the difficult situation in which he found himself, the star, Ajay Kapur, floated his agency, nay gurukul, which gave him a splendid opportunity to lead a double life: to be a hetero by day and a homo by night p. 177.

The models undergo training that approximates—and parodies—military precision: The boys rose early. Their day began with exercises and lessons in martial arts. Much emphasis was laid on working out. No one could skip workouts, no matter what his excuse. The agency hired the best teachers to train its recruits. It adopted a no-nonsense policy with respect to physical fitness. If anyone made a fuss, or proved to be a weakling, he was simply shown the door. Even the RSS was not as stringent p. 178.

Their t-shirts had slogans that the agency’s badshah was said to have invented himself. One such slogan read: PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD. Was PEN IS one word or two? It was one-and-a-half, Ded Galli. There was just that extra millimetre of space between PENand IS that would allow their lawyers to argue that they weren’t being vulgar…Another trademark A.K. slogan read: MY LILLIPUTIAN IS A BROBDINGNAGIAN. This was too literary though, and not very popular p. 179.

The allusion to Swift is more than just an indication of penis size. By evoking the fantastical world of Gulliver’s travels, it reinforces the absurdity of a queer space like the agency.

A glossary would have helped. Otherwise the English reader glides past too many Indian terms, possibly not understanding words by their context.

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